x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Don't know whether to laugh or cry at comedy of life

There are shows and moments in Arabic comedy that we all know by heart. Those moments have become part of our collective memory.

Sayd the Servant, or Al Wad Sayd al Shagal, was an Egyptian play in the 1980s whose main character was played by Adel Imam, one of the most esteemed Arab comic actors. Sayd was a simple, poor servant who worked for an upper class Egyptian family, and the comedy was derived from his shock at the gap between the upper and lower classes.

"Napoleon had nothing better to do? The army and the people and the enemy were all waiting while he was signing plates?" Sayd would say when he found out that the plates he had just broken were supposedly signed by Napoleon Bonaparte. "And they cost 30,000 Egyptian pounds? Are they a set of plates or an apartment?"

There are shows and moments in Arabic comedy that we all know by heart. Those moments have become part of our collective memory. Comedy draws inspirations from our everyday lives, and everyday life also draws inspiration from comedy. Not only does history repeat itself, but comedic moments such as Sayd's are repeated in our own lives.

For everyone who has been watching world events for the past couple of months, we have to stop and take off our hat, burqa or burkini at the absurd state of humanity. How else should we comprehend for example the burqa and niqab ban in France? The law bans face coverings except for motorcycle helmets, fencing, ski masks and carnival costumes.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's argument that the ban was meant to protect equality and promote women's emancipation is equal parts hilarious and sad. His argument could have easily been part of Wad Sayd al Shagal's show. If we can only imagine how Sayd might have reacted to Mr Sarkozy's argument, he would have probably said: "Sarkozy has nothing better to do? He forgot about the economy, the French army in Afghanistan, and became a women's rights advocate?"

I think we have to view these moments as a bit of hysterical comedy, which allow us to understand the clash that is happening in our lives, whether it is the clash between the classes that Sayd was attempting to comprehend or the clash of the civilisations that everyone is trying to deny.

Between the end of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid, everyone was speaking about how ironic it was that Eid coincided with September 11. "International Burn a Quran Day" was planned for that day, and many people were trying to stop it from taking place. There is no doubt that the significance of such moments allows us to experience both laughter and discomfort. Technically the proper way to dispose of a Quran is to burn it, but I doubt that the Florida pastor understood the irony.

We also had to comprehend the argument to stop the building of a mosque on Ground Zero. There should not be a prayer place at a site of catastrophe for those that were the cause of the September 11 destruction, it was argued. This line of thought revealed religious intolerance and Islamophobia, but in reality there was no Ground Zero mosque. As it turned out, the building was not a mosque but a community centre and it was not on Ground Zero but several blocks away.

Then came the peace talks in Washington, which many saw as history repeating itself - although with the Palestinian and Israelis I think history will continue this pointless repetition. How can a supposedly democratic state ask to be recognised as a "Jewish state", to the exclusion of its other citizens? Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas decided to meet Mr Sarkozy as the settlement moratorium expired, hoping that he could gain support to stop Israeli settlement construction.

The irony here is that Mr Sarkozy, who has headed xenophobic campaigns cracking down on gypsies and banning the burqa is sought after to stop the xenophobia of the Israeli expansion.


Hissa al Dhaheri is an Emirati social commentator